COURT IN UZLOVAYA ACQUITS BELIEVERS WHO WERE FINED FOR READING BIBLE AND PRAYING
Religiia i Pravo, 19 April 2021
On 1 April 2021, the Uzlovaya city court of Tula oblast acquitted two believers who are members of the church of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, who in January 2021 were held administratively accountable (a fine of 5,000 rubles for each) for reading the Bible and praying during their worship service. This incident drew the attention of the public after publication on the internet in February of this year of an article by Oleg Goncharov, "Christian believers in Uzlovaya fined for lacking permission for reading the Bible, praying, and singing."
We recall that on 24 October 2020, two agents of the "E" Center for Combating Terrorism of the department of the Russian ministry of internal affairs for Tula oblast visited believers at a building belonging to the religious organization "to check" on the masking procedure. The believers, members of the religious organization, had assembled in the building belonging to the church organization for a worship service and collective reading of the Bible, prayers, and praising God (singing), which are obligatory weekly Saturday ritual for this religious confession. The hospitable believers kindly consented to admit the police agents into their house of worship. M.V.D. agents requested from the leaders of the worship service that they present the documents showing that they had the right to study the Bible, to pray, and to praise God. Naturally, the believers did not have such documents, especially since such permissions, as was later explained, are not required in this case. After having drawn up affidavits regarding the administrative violation of law based on part 4 of article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law [CAVL] of the R.F. because of the lack of documents permitting the reading of the Bible, and also having made a video recording of the worship service itself, the agents delivered materials collected to a magistrate court for assessing an administrative penalty against two believers. In addition, the police composed an affidavit regarding an administrative violation of law based on part 3 of article 5.26 of the CAVL R.F. (a fine of up to 50,000 rubles) against the pastor of the local religious organization for the lack of a sign indicating the name of the religious organization, which the police agents "did not notice."
The magistrate judge of judicial district No. 43 of the Uzlovaya judicial district of Tula oblast, V.G. Senotova, on 20 January 2021 held two Christians believers, who are members of the local religious organization of the church of Christian Seventh-day Adventists (a religious organization that is officially registered and recognized by many specialists as traditional in the Russian Federation), administratively accountable for committing a violation of the law defined in part 4 of article 5.26 of the CAVL R.F. Their crime, in the opinion of the magistrate judge and police, consisted in the study of the Bible and conducting a worship service inside a house of worship belonging to them, without permission specifically for missionary activity. With respect to the pastor and the sign, the magistrate court, on the basis of a petition by the lawyer M.S. Burdin, who presented to the judge proof of the absence of evidence of the commission of a violation of law, terminated the proceedings on the complaint due to a lack of evidence of the violation of law and due to an error by the police agents who composed the administrative affidavit.
After this, the attorney who was defending the interests of the believers, M.S. Burdin, filed an appeal in which he asked for the termination of the proceedings in the case regarding an administrative violation of law, allegedly expressed in the reading of the Bible, because of the absence of an action of administrative violation of law, since the believers were conducting a worship service in a building belonging to the religious organization of the Seventh-day Adventists and were reading the Bible and praying exclusively among their own fellow believers and were not conducting missionary activity, and thus were innocent. No evidence had been presented to the court that persons who were not members of the religious organization were present at the worship service.
The magistrate judge, without any rational basis, classified the actions of the believers as missionary activity. At the same time, a religious studies expert analysis was not ordered during the consideration of the case nor was a specialist in the area of religious studies summoned for participation in the judicial proceedings, which was a violation of the right of the believers to a defense. The lawyer Burdin presented to the court evidence of the innocence of the believers: a statement by all attendees at the worship service to the effect that they are adherents of the church of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, documents about the ownership of the building in which the worship service was conducted by the religious organization, documents about the registration of the religious organization at that address, information from the pastor of said religious organization to the effect that at the time the believers were conducting a worship service in accordance with their religious confession and not a religious ritual, and information to the effect that those who conducted the worship service had been chosen for this ministry by the church community. Despite that, the magistrate court issued a decision holding the two believers administratively accountable for committing a violation of law that is defined by part 4 of article 5.26 of the CDVL R.F. (conducting missionary activity in violation of the requirements of legislation on freedom of conscience and freedom of religious confession and on religious associations).
In the judicial session of the appellate court, Oleg Goncharov, an expert in the area of state-confessional relations, the vice-chairman for external relations of the centralized religious organization Euro-Asian Department of the General Conference of the church of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, and general secretary of the federal public organization Russian Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty, who was summoned by the court, spoke and explained that from the materials of the case and from the video recordings examined, the actions of the believers did not manifest evidence of missionary activity. This was a worship service that is usual for the believers in their own house of worship, without the presence of persons who do not belong to the church community.
After hearing all the arguments of the lawyer and the specialist, the federal judge came to the conclusion that an administrative violation of law defined in part 4 of article 5.26 of the CAVL had not been proven and he granted in full the appeal of the lawyer Burdin to terminate the proceedings on the administrative violation of law and to quash the ruling of the magistrate court regarding a fine for an administrative violation of law, because of the lack of the substance of a violation of law.
In this way, the court in the city of Uzlovaya of Tula oblast restored legality and justice with respect to the two believers who are members of the church of Christian Seventh-day Adventists. This legal decision is yet another confirmation of the fact that worship services that believers conduct in premises belonging to them, and in accordance with their own religious confession, cannot be viewed as missionary activity and for persons conducting them there is no requirement to present any permitting documents. Yet another important result of this case is the strengthening of confidence in the Russian judicial system, which with the appropriate work of defense attorneys permits believers to defend in court their legal rights to freedom of religious confession and to restore justice that was violated solely by the low level of qualification in the area of religious studies of agents of the police and a particular magistrate judge. (tr. by PDS, posted 20 April 2021)
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